['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This week, he crankily denounces beautiful graphics in favor of focusing on other aspects of game development]

The modern face of game development is like that of Janus, the two-faced god. Out of one side game developers and industry commentators praise modern storytelling techniques, cheering on the fledgling stages of an up-and-coming art form. The other face (voiced by those same developers and commenters) is bellowing buzzwords and systems specs to a crowd of slavering graphics-porn aficionados.

Not only do both of these faces let slip a lie or two as they wail, they're working very much at cross purposes. In trying to work both sides of the coin, developers harm themselves, their audience, and ultimately their game. Ultimately the drive for more realistic graphics is a fool's errand, a tilting-at-windmills crusade undertaken by companies more interested in making a buck than in creating a compelling experience.

Today I'd like to explore how the drive for graphical excellence has forever muddied the waters of game creation. While PC game developers are particularly guilty of this, console developers bear just as much of the guilt.

There is hope, of course, as some developers turn their backs on the siren song of "moar pretty". Still, the laundry list of titles released too little or too late because game-makers listened to Janus is far, far too long.

But It Looks So Good

Let me clarify what I'm saying here. There is a fundamental difference between a game's graphical presentation (hardware requirements, architecture, technologies) and a game's artistic presentation (art assets). I love game art. I think that beautiful visual experiences are one of the main reasons to play games, be they simple handheld puzzlers or epic story-based console affairs.

Game art, though, is a measure of the skill of the artists on staff. The ability of talented women and men to put pencil to paper, digital ink to digital canvas. This skill, this art, is as much a part of a game's soul as the story, gameplay, and dialogue of a title.

The graphics engine used to render that art is technology. It's systems engineering, low-level design choices, hardware interactions and compliance tests. I have a lot of respect for the people that do that work, but fundamentally I think that these elements do not a game make. They're the substructure, the support, that allows a game to happen - and ultimately these systems should serve the game. The game shouldn't have to be bent, tweaked, or twisted to serve the engineering.

Games where the structure takes precedence are numerous, and ultimately even a great game can be weakened by overeager system specs. Wouldn't BioShock have been even more widely regarded if it had run on more systems? How much has Age of Conan's rocky launch been affected by the graphical fidelity Funcom sought out?

Why It Doesn't Have To Look So Good

The last few years of gaming have proven, on several levels, how successful games can be when engineering works to serve the game's best interests. My personal familiarity with online gaming leads me to draw from that genre for examples, and pulls up possibly the best argument on the side of art: Arena.net's Guild Wars.

Guild Wars is a wildly successful online RPG, an MMO with no reoccurring monthly fee. The game's unlimited playability is no doubt a contributing factor to its success, but the game's visual experience has to be seen to be believed. Sweeping vistas, alien landscapes, towering cityscapes, all pulled from the minds of Arena's stable of imaginative concept artists.

And everything renders without a stutter, pop, or slowdown on machines even three or four years old. Guild Wars is a liquid experience because the Arena engineers pride themselves on making a small, fast, tight game. Instead of striving for realism and falling inevitably short, Arena.net created a beautiful experience that still looks beautiful even years after the game was released.

This is what games should be about: fun without the fluster. Why try to reinvent the wheel for the 400th time? Say something meaningful through a well-turned phrase, a beautiful drawing, and a really fun level or two.

Not Just a PC Thing

Many players probably feel this way about PC games, but console gamers are suffering under the same yoke. While it's easy to point out the technological brilliance of Mass Effect, to ooh and ahh over the realistic facial expressions and conversation system, couldn't that goal have been reached sans five-minute-elevator-sequences?

More obviously, console games take just as long (or longer) to develop than PC games. What's going to result in a better game: a three year dev cycle with all new tech dominated by bug fixing, or a two year dev cycle based on existing technology dominated by content polishing?

Regardless of platform, design for the sake of engineering is a disservice to the player. Every second the player waits for your game to load because of that shiny rendering engine is a moment he could be having fun. If games are supposed to be doorways into new realms, doesn't it behoove the industry as a whole to make stepping across that threshold as painless as possible?

Forget About the Porn

My fundamental frustration with this element of the games industry is that it's all about pornography. It's about the conquest of new graphical terrain, hardware thrumming in straining boxes, and high-voiced smacktards grinning as their eyes consume polygons and framerate counts. Why does every game company have to be Marco fricking Polo when it comes exploring game spaces? Do they really think their revolutionary ideas about isometric hack and slash RPGs are going to remake the map? That their FPS-lite stealth game will shake the foundations of the industry?

Engineers are explorers. They break new ground in the sphere of possibility, opening up new realms to observe and utilize. Artists are communicators. They convey ideas and concepts, illuminating ideas within the human mind. These two disciplines are equally important, and equally valid approaches to making games.

We've seen a lot of exploration and engineering. We all know game developers can push NVidia's chipset past the breaking point. All I ask is, why not see what the industry can do with some year-old hardware, a decent writer, and a couple of great artists? Just for a change of pace?